By Nancy Fahey Smith, Pima County Field Trainer (Tucson, AZ) and Director, NASJE Western Region
The restless learner—a person who can never be comfortable with her/his own expertise in the face of rapid knowledge advancements, research revisions, and obsolescence of facts.
—from Warren Berger, The More Beautiful Question (2014)
Judicial Branch Educators are restless learners. As such, they continually investigate new research on teaching and learning and on topics of interest to courts. They also need to be critical thinkers, constantly evaluating what they know and what they need to learn. Rethinking learning styles is just such a topic. There is much to know about learning styles, but well-tested and documented research goes against the widely accepted view that teachers should alter their teaching styles according to their learners’ learning styles in order to maximize learning. In addition, research casts doubt on the reliability of assessments designed to determine individual learning styles. In this article, the video that was the impetus for the session on this topic at NASJE’s 2016 conference will be summarized, a review of research on these topics will be discussed, and possible implications for NASJE members will be put forth.
First of all, how are learning styles defined? Essentially, this is part of the problem. The definition varies widely depending on which of many models one consults. Coffield et al., in the comprehensive “Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review,” grapple with this issue and end up categorizing the many models into five different families (Coffield, 10).
Regardless of the definition of learning styles, the most popular recommendation in the models is that teachers should match their teaching style to the learning styles of their learners. How does a teacher know the learning style of a learner? By using a learning style assessment (LSA) or learning style inventory (LSI), or similar measuring tool.
With the complexity of these models in mind, a good way to begin an open discussion about the limited usefulness of learning styles theory in the development of classes, courses, or programs, is to view the 2015 TEdx Talk by Dr. Tesia Marshik called “Learning Styles and the Importance of Self-Reflection.” In it, Professor Marshik of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse explains that we believe learning styles theory because the idea is so widespread that one might think, “How can so many people be wrong?” The idea seems so logical, it must be true! Many teacher training and faculty development programs include a discussion of learning styles theory and what teachers should do with respect to them. Because we are so convinced, we have something called confirmation bias. This means that since we want to believe a theory is true, we look for information that confirms our belief. But research into how people learn, Dr. Marshik points out, shows that people store information as meaning, and thus, they learn better not because a given teaching method matches their learning style, but because the teaching method helps learners create meaning.
In the video, Dr. Marshik demonstrates with several examples that it is not a person’s learning style or the way a teacher changes styles to match those of learners that increases learning. Instead, it is the context a learner brings to the table, and teaching methods that help learners achieve desired learning outcomes that makes a difference. For example, does it make sense to teach birdsongs by showing pictures of birds, because the learners have identified as visual learners? Of course not.
Better, says Dr. Marshik, to teach in ways that enhance the intended outcome of the teaching. Clearly, learners would need to hear birdsongs if they are to identify the songs. Similarly, they would need to see birds, or pictures of them, to help match the song to the kind of bird. In fact, Dr. Marshik points out that seeing pictures of birds, listening to their songs, and observing live birds (perhaps on a field trip?) or videos of birds singing would enhance the chances of learners actually identifying the birds and their songs because involving more senses has been proven to enhance learning, possibly because it helps create meaning. This phenomenon is not, however, due to different learning styles, rather it is true that all people, regardless of learning style, learn better if more senses are involved. In a similar way, if the outcome is for learners to be able to change a flat tire, actually having the experience of changing the tire, coupled with instruction, will give the exercise meaning. But this method doesn’t work just for or particularly for kinesthetic learners, rather having the experience enhances the ability to change a tire for all learners.
Dr. Marshik does not mean to say that people aren’t different or that they don’t learn differently, only that teaching to someone’s learning style does not enhance their learning. Learning styles are usually self-assessed, and teaching someone only to their chosen style is limiting. It inhibits the ways learners can learn rather than enhancing learning by a variety of means. And, it is impractical for teachers to do.
Finally, Dr. Marshik points out the importance of context to learning. In an experiment using chess boards and experienced chess players, researchers demonstrated that the chess players remembered the position of chess pieces on a board very well if the board represented a realistic game. By contrast, if the pieces were placed randomly on the board they lost their contextual meaning, and the players were unable to recreate with much accuracy where the pieces were placed. The random nature of their position on the boards negated the meaning (context) for players. As educators, it is essential to remember the importance of the context learners bring to the classroom. If context is lacking, it must be established before learners will be able to make meaning during the learning process.
In “Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review,” authors Coffield et al., set out to evaluate a large number of models that claim to prove learning styles theory and offer models that classify the learning styles of students. Coffield and company studied 13 out of 71 such models in five different groups. (NOTE 1: A total of 3800 references were identified; 838 were reviewed and logged in the database; 631 texts selected in the references, and 351 texts referring directly to the 13 major theorists. See Coffield et al., Figure 1.) Their research states that there is a dearth of well-conducted experimental studies of the models. The learning styles assessments themselves have proven to be unreliable and often invalid. Their conclusion? There is no evidence that ‘matching’ teaching styles to learning styles improves academic performance. In fact, in the explanations of the learning theories, the implications for teaching are drawn from the theories themselves rather than from research findings. In other words, pedagogical advice in various learning style theories may be logical, but is unproven. The wide variety of models, the vested interests in purveyors of learning styles assessments, and the entire theoretical framework has not made a proven difference in the efficacy of education for many learners.
Coffield and his co-authors did not throw out those 71 theories as total bunk. Each model is carefully explained in terms of strengths and weaknesses. They agree that teaching learners ways to talk about how they learn and what motivates them, as espoused by Kolb, can be beneficial to their learning. Their conclusion, however, is the same: adapting teaching styles to learning styles does not enhance learning and given the complexity of the task, is impractical to undertake.
What about Kolb’s learning circle? Is it a workable model if one takes away Kolb’s four learning styles named diverging, converging, accommodating and assimilating and just leaves the cycle of learning he espouses in this circle? Coffield et al. say the value of the learning circle is a big maybe. The flexible approach to learning styles Kolb puts forth is a plus, and experiential learning theory is seen as a strength of the model. But the Learning Styles Inventory has proven to be neither reliable nor valid, although it has improved in more recent iterations, and the learning circle itself may not be applicable to all learning as is proposed by the model. Since the implications for teaching in Kolb have not been conclusively proven in research findings, it is difficult to know how well it works (68, 70). The research is decidedly mixed. Like much in learning styles theory, the concept is logical and appealing while in reality, further well-designed studies are needed to prove that the model can be relied upon.
In “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education,” (2013) Paul Kirschner and Jeroen van Merriënboer of the Open University of the Netherlands Department of Educational Development and Research call learning styles theory an “urban legend” based on belief rather than science, and used by instructional designers, curriculum reformers, politicians, school administrators and advisory groups all vying for position to show how innovative and up to date they can be. Kirschner and van Merriënboer examine three problems with learning style theory in their article. First, they explain that most learning styles are based on types, which means they classify people into distinct groups rather than assigning people scores on different dimensions. Objective studies, such as one by Druckman and Porter in 1991, do not support this way of labeling people. In reality, many people do not fit one particular style, the way they are classified relies on inadequate information, and there are so many different styles that it is difficult to link particular learners to particular styles.
A second problem with the “urban legend” are the low reliabilities of the measuring instruments. In other words, when individuals complete a particular measurement at two different points in time, the results are very often inconsistent (Stahl, 1999). Research also calls into doubt the validity of the learning styles measure—the relationship between what people say about how they learn and how they actually learn is weak.
A final point according to Kirschner and van Merriënboer is the proliferation of reported learning styles, as seen above in the Coffield study. How can teachers ever truly accommodate so many different styles as proposed in so many theoretical constructs? The research to prove which of the theoretical constructs is actually best has not been done.
In 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology (2010), Scott Lilienfeld and his co-authors make the same point, calling learning styles theory a myth, a scientific misconception. In the preface to the book, science educator David Hammer describes the four major properties of these kinds of misconceptions: 1. They are stable and often strongly held beliefs about the world; 2. They are contradicted by well-established evidence; 3. They influence how people understand the world; and 4. They must be corrected to achieve accurate knowledge. (Lilienfeld, et al. xiv). In their discussion, the authors arrive, after a review of the research, at the same conclusions as the Coffield group: The proliferation of learning styles models show no agreement about what learning styles are; learning styles inventories are not reliable, nor are they valid; there are not reliable studies showing that it helps students if teachers match their teaching styles to students’ learning styles. As the authors say, “models and measures of LS (learning styles) don’t come to grips with the possibility that the best approaches to teaching and learning may depend on what students are trying to learn.” (95). Clearly one would not choose to learn, nor to teach, ballroom dancing the same way as a foreign language or geometry theorems.
Popular education blogger Cathy Moore comes to the same conclusion about learning styles in her 2010 blog post “Learning Styles: Worth our Time?” and the Debunker Club is on a mission to convince teachers and others about the fallacy of their belief in learning styles in their “Learning Styles are NOT an Effective Guide for Learning Design.” They provide numerous references for further research supporting their view.
Essentially, while much good research exists that disproves learning styles theory, little good research proves that learning styles have value for teaching.
What does this mean for NASJE members, who learned about learning style theory in their new educators’ workshop and possibly in teacher education programs, and who hold to Kolb’s theories for support in their published instructional design and faculty development curricula? This is something each member will have to decide independently after doing their own research and examining what they teach, how they teach it, and why. In addition, NASJE as an organization should assess the value of teaching learning styles theory to new educators and new faculty, as well as decide how to approach faculty that have already been taught the theory and been asked to hold to it when designing their classes for judicial branch personnel.
What it does not mean, however, is that NASJE’s judicial branch educators have been teaching its members and its learners all wrong. To the contrary, many highly effective educators belong to this group. The NASJE curriculum design for instructional design, for example, teaches a logical progression for designing classes, considerations for developing learning objectives and outcomes, the importance of active learning and student involvement, a variety of teaching methodologies, evaluations, and much more valuable information at both a beginning and an advanced level. NASJE educators recognize the value of knowing their audience, and designing and teaching with their needs in mind. Rethinking learning styles is a way to advance the professionalism espoused by NASJE, and to embrace being “restless learners” who think critically and are not afraid rethink how they teach and learn.
NASJE members and judicial branch educators everywhere are encouraged to continue the discussion on the Judicial Educators Facebook page. In addition, posts about teaching methods that do work would be welcome. For those who do not yet belong to the group, search for “judicial educators” from your Facebook page and request to join the group. If you are not yet on Facebook, it is easy to join at facebook.com.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post 16 learning: a systematic and critical review. The Learning and Skills Research Centre. See: http://sxills.nl/lerenlerennu/bronnen/Learning%20styles%20by%20Coffield%20e.a..pdf
Kirschner, P., van Merriënboer, J., (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education. Education Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2013.804395. See: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395
Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S., Ruscio, J., Beyerstone, B., (2010). 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, UK.
Marshik, Tesia, (2015). “Learning Styles and the Importance of Self-Reflection.” TEdxUWLaCrosse, Wisconsin. Published via YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=855Now8h5Rs
Moore, Cathy, 21 September 2010. “Learning Styles: Worth our Time?” See: http://blog.cathy-moore.com/2010/09/learning-styles-worth-our-time/
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). “Learning styles concepts and evidence.” Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105-119. See: http://steinhardtapps.es.its.nyu.edu/create/courses/2174/reading/Pashler_et_al_PSPI_9_3.pdf
Pashler, H., and Rohrer, D., (2012). “Learning Styles: Where’s the Evidence?” Medical Education, 46, 630-635.
Stahl, S. (1999). “Different strokes for different folks? A critique of learning styles.” American Educator, 23(3), 27–31. (Cited in Kirschner)
The Debunker Club, “Learning Styles are NOT an Effective Guide for Learning Design.” Accessed 11 October 2016. See: http://www.debunker.club/learning-styles-are-not-an-effective-guide-for-learning-design.html
NAJSE Curriculum Designs were developed with a grant from the State Justice Institute (SJI-10-T-091) and published between 2011 and 2015. See https://nasje.org/nasje-curriculum-designs/
The author would like to thank NASJE colleagues Kelly Tait, Margaret Allen and Caroline Kirkpatrick for their assistance and support in the writing of this article.
Currently the Pima County Field Trainer, Nancy Smith has over 8 years of experience working in court training and education, first at the Washington State AOC and now at Pima County Superior Court (Tucson, AZ). She came to the courts with 16 years experience in education, both as a community college instructor and a high school teacher in Tucson, and as a curriculum coordinator at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Nancy teaches many kinds of court related classes, including soft skill topics like team building and time management, and court related topics like due process. She also does training and process analysis in computer applications. She speaks periodically at conferences on topics related to judicial education and publishes articles at NASJE.org. Currently, she serves on the NASJE Board as the Western Region Director. She earned her bachelor’s degree in French and History at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and her Master’s in French from the Free University of Brussels, Belgium. Nancy grew up in a Navy family, married into an Army family and served four years as an Army Intelligence officer. She has traveled widely around the United States and Europe as well as to Peru, Mexico and China. She likes the outdoors, and swims, hikes, bikes and does yoga to try and stay fit.